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Sunday 21 September 2014

'Devout Christian' solicitor jailed for three years for stealing €2.8m from former client accounts

Declan Brennan and Aoife Nic Ardghail

Published 18/07/2014 | 12:06

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Ruairi O Ceallaigh Photo: Courtpix
Ruairi O Ceallaigh Photo: Courtpix

A struck off solicitor described as a “devout Christian” has been jailed for three years for stealing €2.8m from former client accounts to fund investment properties and buy on the stock market.

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Judge Mary Ellen Ring commented that Ruairi O’Ceallaigh (42) had used to the money for the "ultimate in gambling" and had "gambled on the gamble".

O’Ceallaigh, of Collegeland, Summerhill, Co Meath pleaded guilty to seven counts of dishonestly appropriating a total of €2,816,566, the property of Sean O Ceallaigh and Company and having designated these sums as credited to seven named clients' accounts on dates between July 2006 and May 2010.

O’Ceallaigh told gardai he took the money from the accounts with the intention of paying it back. He had used it to buy shares, including Contracts For Difference, in an attempt to “claw back” some losses made elsewhere.

"I was under the false belief I could make the money back on the stock market and make right the wrong that I had done,” he told investigators.

Judge Ring said O’Ceallaigh committed the most fundamental breaches of trust as a solicitor and commented that had he been convicted at trial, a sentence of eight years “would not have been excessive.”

The judge said to his credit he entered early guilty pleas and co-operated with gardai.

She imposed a five year sentence backdated to earlier this month and with the final two years suspended for two years.

Det Sgt Walsh told the court that Noleen McCarthy, the investigating accountant with The Law Society, was like “a dog with a bone” in her pursuit of the missing files discovered during a routine compliance check on the law firm.

He said that she was presented with a number of excuses about the missing files and that O’Ceallaigh was embarrassed to hand them over because of the missing funds.

In August 2010 he admitted the thefts to his family and work colleagues and a full investigation began. The clients accounts were in the names of Donal O Suilleabhainn, Hugh Armstrong,  Kathleen Searles,  Michael Sweeney,  Niamh O’Neill, and Paula Reddy, all with addresses in Dublin.

The court heard that the first offending took place in 2006 after Mr Sweeney who had sold his life interest in the tenancy of a house in Dublin, lodged €264,374 into a client account.

O’Ceallaigh told Mr Sweeney he had invested the money in stocks but in reality he used a quarter of a million of this to invest in property in Cabra, north Dublin.

He later issued a cheque for €12,500 to Mr Sweeney which was designed to represent the return on the stocks.

In September 2008 Mr O Suilleabhainn had appointed O’Ceallaigh to deal with his estate. Mr O' Suilleabhainn had left the residue of this €1.6 million estate to the Archbishop of Dublin and O'Ceallaigh made five withdrawals from this account between September 30 and November 11, 2008.

In March 2009 O’Ceallaigh stole €134,831 from the client account of Mr Armstrong after he had lodged €417,000 resulting from the sale of inherited lands in County Clare.  O’Ceallaigh used €50,000 of this to repay a loan from a friend while the rest was paid to his stock broker.

In June 2008 stole the entire amount of €151,078 that had been lodged into the client account of Ms Searle.

O’Ceallaigh diverted over half a million from the client account of Niamh O'Neill and into his stockbroker's account. He repaid €405,000 into the account, leaving a deficit of €104,646.

Between August and September 30, 2009 he made four withdrawals from the account of Paula Reddy, totalling €144,644. This money was also paid to his stockbroker.

In October 2009 he diverted €75,000 from the account of Ms Dunne, another client of the firm.

The court heard that O’Ceallaigh’s father made efforts to pay back some of the stolen money to the Law Society and even offered to sell his home. The law firm, which had been set up by the father in 1958, was eventually wound down.

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